Support quality local journalism. Become a subscriber.

Didn't get a chance to finish your story? Purchase a day pass digital subscription and you'll receive unlimited online access for one day (24 hours). You will have immediate access upon completion of your purchase.

“Who will look out for me if I’m no longer able to take care of myself?” many empty nesters ask. Regardless of age, everyone needs to know that there is someone to make critical decisions regarding their health care if he or she can’t.

This article discusses the legal mechanisms and issues that can help you answer this question. Whether you’re 25 or 85, you may face a sudden health crisis due to an accident or serious illness that leaves you unable to make your own medical decisions.

Fortunately, there is a means to address this potential future concern –it’s called a health care Power of Attorney. This POA allows you to legally designate someone—a stand-in with Power of Attorney—to make medical decisions for you. In some states you may even be able to combine a health care POA and living will in a single document.

Hospitals and nursing homes are required to ask about the existence of any advance directive upon admittance. In most states, a health care POA does not take effect until you can no longer make medical decisions for yourself; until then, only you can consent to any treatment. In addition, you can always change or cancel the document as long as you are mentally alert. If you decide to make changes to these documents, be sure to do so in writing.

Though it is a legal document, a health care POA cannot handle every medical situation, and there are some key points to consider before you grant someone this power. Do not use a health care POA unless you fully trust the person you have named. If you don’t have a health care POA, many states will appoint a person to make medical decisions on your behalf. Usually, this person is your closest relative, whose values may or may not coincide with your intentions.

Most states permit a doctor or health care facility to override your document for reasons of conscience. In these cases, the doctor or facility must tell you or your POA about this when you are admitted to and must offer to help transfer you to another facility that will comply with your wishes or those of the health care POA.

The advance directive may not be followed by emergency medical services (EMS). If EMS is summoned to treat you in case of a life-threatening situation, they are usually required to resuscitate and stabilize you until you reach the hospital, regardless of an advance directive.

Though all states accept health care proxies as legal, each varies considerably in what is required of these documents. Also, if a health care POA is written to your state’s specification but you undergo medical treatment when visiting another state, the rules regulating health care proxies in the state in which treatment takes place will usually prevail.

The information in this column is not intended to be legal advice but to give you a heads up. Each individual’s situation is different. You should contact your attorney to discuss your personal situation.  

Financial inquiries for this column can be e-mailed to